Skeleton helps solve 150-year-old mystery of Smithsonian scientist’s death

Robert Kennicot was a charismatic, handsome young explorer and naturalist who died mysteriously in 1866 while on a struggling Yukon expedition. Now, forensic anthropologists examining his skeleton have likely found out how he died.

Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post:

The last anyone heard of Robert Kennicott was his cheerful hum as he strolled into the Alaskan wilderness early on the morning of May 13, 1866.

It was good to hear the scientist sing. It had been a long and punishing winter at Fort Nulato, where Kennicott’s expedition to map the Yukon had spent the last five months, and he bore the setbacks badly. The frigid cold and endless dark left no time for exploration or research, a fact that rendered Kennicott “entirely broken down,” a friend wrote.

This was not a young man used to failure. By age 30, Kennicott had become an accomplished explorer and celebrated naturalist for the Smithsonian Institution. He was bold, brilliant and fearless; someone who handled venomous snakes with his bare hands.

When Kennicott didn’t return, his men began to worry. The expedition’s engineer brought up a note their leader left for him that morning, which included instructions “in case of any accident happening to me.”

A search party was hastily mobilized; rescuers fanned out across the bleak, mountainous landscape. Soon two of them arrived at the Yukon River, just south of the fort, where their worst fears were confirmed. Kennicott lay on his back on the muddy shore, his arms across his chest, his hat fallen on his face, his body completely still. He was dead.

Tenderly, the devastated men lifted their leader’s body and began to carry it back to the fort. That’s when they noticed something strange: The small vial of medicinal strychnine that Kennicott always carried with him was missing.

In 1866, whispers traveled faster than ships. By the time Kennicott’s remains were returned to his family homestead in Illinois, called the Grove, eight months after his death, the rumor that Kennicott had killed himself with a fatal dose of the poison had already taken hold. What else could explain the death of a man seemingly in his prime of life?

Stephan Swanson, director of the Grove, which is now a National Historic Landmark, as well as Smithsonian anthropologists Kari Bruwelheide and Doug Owsley, initially intended to return Kennicott’s skeleton for reburial at the Grove. Instead, with the permission of Kennicott’s descendants, the skeleton is being added to the museum’s human anatomy collection, and is already being used to research the effects of mercury-based dental fillings and test the accuracy of facial reconstruction software.

“We think he would like that,” Owsley said. “He’s a collector who was collected.”

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